Emulating the strategy that helped propel its New 52 campaign to record sales for the company, DC Comics will launch its controversial Before Watchmen series with a rare TV commercial (see exclusive stills here) that showcases the artwork and targets the franchise’s broader readership.
“We’re selling prequel material to the best-selling graphic novel of all time—it’s sold 2 million to date,” DC Entertainment’s vice president of marketing John Cunningham says about Watchmen, which has been in print since the mid-'80s. “Because those books sold outside of the comic book market, we knew we would attract a larger swath of readers outside of the core market. TV is the most effective form of advertising for that.”
The seven distinct Before Watchmen comic book mini-series will feature separate, but occasionally overlapping, backstories of individual characters comprising the Watchmen universe. The series’ day-and-date release is June 6. The day before, the 30-second commercial will appear on IFC, BBC America, and G4, as well as social media, while an extended one-minute ad runs on the DC Comics site. With programming like The Onion News Network, Dr. Who, and Attack of the Show, these cable networks tend to attract comic-friendly viewers. DC opted against too much advance promotion, a less effective strategy with a readership conditioned to digital and social media’s instant gratification. “We realized that the books needed to be available as soon as people saw the ad,” says Cunningham.
In similar style to the New 52 commercial, promoting the company’s total revamp of its monthly titles, DC lets the artwork do the talking through a series of motion comic vignettes produced by Motherland, a New York motion, animation, and entertainment company, that uses computerized layering to give the artwork a 3-D feel. “We were seeing the artwork as it was coming into the editorial department, so we could identify images to give to the ad agency,” says Cunningham.
Motherland’s technique involves importing digital files of the artwork into Photoshop, using that software to lay individual characters over one another and a background—creating as many as four or five layers. That layered file is then imported into Adobe After Effects, which positions each layer behind the other in 3-D space (or “z” space, for those who still remember geometry). The designers then set up a virtual camera, which, when moved around, makes the layers look as though they are moving in space. The images are enhanced with virtual lighting, shadows, blurred fore- and backgrounds for greater depth-of-field, and environmental effects, like rain, fog, and smoke.
“The ad uses the imagery as a teaser to promote those books—it’s not a narrative,” says Lance Sells, Motherland’s founder and creative director. “It’s pretty much the same technique as the New 52 commercial, but with less flash and swooping cameras. This is darker, more toned down, and more noir. “
The commercial is part of a marketing push that includes Before Watchmen creator panels at comic conventions, like April’s C2E2 in Chicago, and this summer’s San Diego Comic Con and Toronto Fan Expo, as well as both online and physical mock-ups (dispersed at cons) of the New Frontiersman, a newspaper in Watchmen, featuring hidden clues that tie into the Before Watchmen comics. DC also hopes to place the ad in upcoming DVD and Blu-ray releases of related films of its parent company, Warner Bros., as they did with the New 52 ad in the Green Lantern DVD last fall.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. has licensed several of its properties—including Watchmen—to Dynamic Forces for a line of themed toasters to come out this fall.
Absent from this campaign is any nod to the controversy surrounding the artistic integrity of the Before Watchmen project, which has been vociferously opposed by Watchmen writer Alan Moore, and former DC freelance writer Chris Roberson and writer/artist Roger Langridge.
“Our goal all along has been to focus on the books and material themselves,” says Cunningham. “When fans read these books, they’ll understand why we were excited about them.”
Click on the above slideshow for commercial stills from artists Lee Bermejo, Darwyn Cooke, J.G. Jones, Adam Hughes, Andy and Joe Kubert, Jae Lee, and Amanda Conner.